Stress Resilience in Lasting Relationships

Teachers of introductory psychology courses often spend a little time near the beginning of the term making clear that many familiar common-sense sayings are actually not true.  For example, research has demonstrated that we tend to be attracted to people who are at least somewhat similar to us (“Birds of a feather flock together”), even though “Opposites attract” is a well-known adage. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is another saying that is not supported by research. You may also have heard the saying, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”  I have a friend who has decided it should be, “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you wish you were dead.”  She means it mostly as a joke, I think.

Now, however, recent research by Lisa Neff and Elizabeth Broady, psychologists at the University of Texas, suggests that facing some adversity early on in a marriage can have lasting, positive effects.  But let’s not jump the gun:  stressful life experiences such as work stress or financial difficulties can spill over with negative consequences for a relationship. That stress can have negative effects on a relationship is a given. But more and more research is suggesting that stress is not always harmful. The important question, then, is when stress will have positive rather than negative effects on a relationship.

Every six months for two years Neff and Broady asked a group of newlyweds about stressful experiences in the previous six months in areas like work, school, living conditions, and finances. They also asked couples to rate their degree of marital satisfaction.  What you would expect is that the more stress a person experiences over time the more that stress would spill over into the relationship, thereby reducing satisfaction.  But this was not the case for every person.  Rather, partners who experienced stress early in the marriage were able to resist the tendency to allow later stress to spill over and hurt the relationship if, and only if, they had good problem-solving skills.

“Good problem-solving skills” is one of those nebulous terms that is hard to define.  And psychologists have measured problem solving in many different ways. In this research, positive problem-solving behaviors were defined as “…behaviors that help define the problem, suggest a plan of coping with the issue, convey understanding and support to the partner, or provide encouragement and affection to the partner” (p. 1054).  Just for the sake of comparison, notice they defined negative problem-solving behavior as “…behaviors that directly criticize, fault, or reject the partner, as well as…behaviors that indirectly criticize the partner through hostile sarcasm, avoiding responsibility, or hostile questioning” (p.1054).

After reading this you might have a vague sense of what’s at work here: practice. Individuals who experience some stress and deal successfully with it are more able to deal with it in the future because they have had some practice and it has improved their skills. Does “practice make perfect?” No, but it sure helps.  Most every skill is improved with practice, and coping with stress in a lasting relationship is no exception.  Practice in defining problems, identifying plans of action, and providing support, encouragement, and affection to your partner will allow you to sidestep the harmful spillover effects that stress can have on a relationship.

So maybe there is something to the adage, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you a stronger.”  Our version might be, “What doesn’t kill your relationship (because your good problem-solving skills prevent stress from spilling over into your relationship), makes it stronger.”  Though I guess that’s not quite as catchy as it needs to be.

In case you are interested…

Neff, L. A., & Broady, E. F. (2011). Stress Resilience in Early Marriage: Can Practice Make Perfect? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1050–1067.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.